Remember that one time? In Congress? When an anonymous group of House Republicans tried and failed to sneak a rider into the farm bill that would have exempted agribusiness from liability for biotech crops and all but eliminated the government’s power to regulate them? Good times.
Well, the implosion of the farm bill did nothing to stop Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, et al’s quest to insulate themselves from lawsuits. Maybe it has something to do with the rise of superweeds and superbugs resistant to their products and the fact that commodity farmers are just maybe starting to take a hard look at the costs versus the benefits of the current and coming crop of genetically modified seeds. Or perhaps it’s simply a desire to complete their dominance of U.S. agriculture.
Whatever the reason, the so-called “Monsanto rider” is back, this time thanks to an anonymous senator, or group of senators, who have attached it to the must-pass “Continuing Resolution” that will keep the government operating as of March 27. Let me just say that when it comes to Congress — which is chockablock with men and women desperate for media attention — whenever you hear the word “anonymous” attached to anything, you know you there’s something sketchy going on.
Tom Philpott at Mother Jones did the yeoman’s service of digging out the exact language from the bill. Right after the section where Congress defunds the mohair subsidy program (you do know we have a mohair subsidy program, don’t you?), the draft legislation states that in the event that a court declares a genetically modified seed illegal, the U.S. Department of Agriculture can override the judge and allow farmers to keep planting, harvesting, and distributing it. Funny enough, this exact scenario occurred with Monsanto’s GMO sugar beets a couple years ago when a federal judge found that the USDA had violated the law in approving them. The department defied the court order and told farmers to keep planting anyway.
While no senators are copping to having inserted the language into the government funding bill, one senator is very publicly trying to stop it: Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the only working farmer in the Senate — and an organic one to boot. He was instrumental in finding ways to make the recent food-safety reform law work for small and organic farmers, and he’s one of the few senators west of the Mississippi who has a truly reformist attitude toward agriculture issues.
In fact, Tester noted in his remarks that another agribiz-friendly rider has been slipped into the bill — one that would undo the modest reforms the Obama administration has proposed to protect chicken farmers from predatory, anti-competitive behavior from dominant poultry processors like Tyson and Perdue. (You can find more on the hardships chicken farmers face here.)
In his speech, Tester attacked the riders as the kind of “shady backroom deal” Montanans sent him to Washington to fight. He’s offered amendments that would strip both provisions from the government funding bill. The Senate adjourned for the weekend yesterday (yes, the Senate only works four days a week) without acting on them.
Which is why several groups, including Food Democracy Now!, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and the Center for Food Safety have all called on consumers to call their senators over the weekend demanding they support the Tester amendments.
If these two provisions strike you as out of line, you now know what to do. Failing some serious public outcry, I’d say odds favor the Monsanto rider becoming law as soon as next week — unless the whole Continuing Resolution process fails. But then the government would shut down. Now that would be good times.
UPDATE, March 20, 2013: I just got off the phone with Sen. Tester’s office. At this point, a vote on his amendment to strip the biotech-protection provisions from the government funding bill is very unlikely. The bill is headed for what’s known as a “vote-a-rama” on dozens of amendments, but Tester’s will not be among them. Tester voted against moving the bill forward in protest, but it will make it through the Senate eventually. If the House takes up the funding bill as-is, which is likely, there will be no other opportunity to kill the biotech rider this year. If you’re wondering about that sound of cheering you hear from D.C. right now, it’s probably Monsanto…